A New Year – 2021 Lockdown

As we enter into a new year with a vaccine gone into distribution, we would like to offer our best wishes to everyone for a better year ahead.

Whilst we look forward with optimism for a glimpse of normality, we would like to highlight the current circumstances of the service amid current lockdown restrictions.

Whilst a spring/summer lockdown of 2020 was challenging, the longer sunny days and warmth made the daily tasks of home working and home schooling seem bearable. Like many of you, we face these same tasks in the winter months, confined to our homes due to a dark, damp and cold climate, the challenges and strains have been intensified.

As a service, whilst continuing to offer the best customer experience that we can, current restrictions requires the continued closure of our offices and maintained remote working. Managers have recognised the extended challenges of this lockdown on all staff within the service from family life, care of vulnerable family and friends, childcare and home-schooling to those living alone, all in need of support. Consequently, the well-being and mental health of our staff within the service will continue to be prioritised. Approximately 40% of our staff have young children and dependants therefore, we expect elements of the service to experience delays as parents fulfil their daily duties however, we continue to do the best we can to minimise the disruption to the service.

Key elements of the service still continue and these include receiving, processing and assessing planning applications; City Plan 2030; planning enforcement; neighbour notifications; Planning helpdesk; DM sub-committee; and, the Local Review Body. Elements of the service that have been suspended include site visits, and site notices will be available online only. A small plea: if you are submitting an application, any contextual information including photos would be very helpful.

As a planning authority, we rely heavily on the input from colleagues within other services, agents/architects, consultants, stakeholders and communities. We recognise these same challenges will be faced by everyone. We offer our sincere understanding and continued willingness to work with you, optimising new forms of communication and alternative working arrangements.

We will continue to deliver the best possible planning service for our city however, given these challenging times and restrictive working environments, we ask for your continued patience and understanding for our staff.

Thank you.    

Chief Planners of Tomorrow

The City of Edinburgh Council’s Planning Service has Learning Partner status with the Royal Town Planning Institute.  This commits us to a programme of continuous training and development to support planning officers, elected members and community groups. 

In 2019, we won the Learning Partner Award for the best programme in the UK.

It is important to provide learning opportunities for young planners.  For the second successive year, our Chief Planning Officer was shadowed as part of a national initiative.

Lucy Sumner MRTPI, from Perth and Kinross Council writes about her experience:

Lucy is the Development Contributions Officer for Perth and Kinross Council, where she took up post earlier this year following her time with Aberdeen City Council’s Local Development Plan team. Lucy is based in Perth and is also involved with the RTPI East of Scotland Chapter. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter, @sumnernotsummer

In what feels like the distant past of 2019, I applied for the Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) Chief Planners of Tomorrow initiative and I was delighted to be successfully paired with David Leslie at City of Edinburgh Council for the experience in 2020.

The Chief Planners of Tomorrow initiative allows a young planner the opportunity to spend some time shadowing a Chief Planner for the day. Usually this would take place in-person, attending meetings and visiting the Council’s offices, however like most things throughout 2020 David and I had to adapt and find alternative ways to share this experience. We were able to benefit from the virtual platform so many of us have become acquainted with this year; allowing us to tailor the programme more naturally to our schedules.

The role of a Chief Planner is very diverse, and David was keen to try and show me as much as possible from his day-to-day tasks over the course of the experience. David and I initially discussed our expectations of the opportunity, and he was then able to prepare a programme covering these key learning areas. These included; Strategic Management Issues, Political Awareness, and Service Planning.

Strategic Management Issues

David introduced me to service managers for Development Management and Development Planning, David Givan and Iain McFarlane. We discussed their roles, their career pathways and some of the key responsibilities involved with their roles. I learned about their experience as managers during a global pandemic, including some of the challenges with working remotely and how this affects day-to-day tasks, performance, and morale.

Political Awareness

After watching one of the Council’s publicly webcast Development Management Sub-Committee meetings, David extended an opportunity to attend the weekly meeting between service managers and the Convenor and Vice-Convenor. I therefore had the pleasure of meeting the Councillors Neil Gardiner and Maureen Child.

As a Planner I have held roles in private sector with a housebuilder and as a consultant, and in public sector as a Council officer, so my interaction with Elected Members has usually revolved around Planning Committees, so this was a hugely valuable experience in seeing how Committee meetings are briefed and prepared for … something like a backstage pass! Observing this meeting helped me understand my own role better too; for example, how certain actions arise ahead of Committees, or why briefing notes are requested. This gave some context as to how things progress and the relationship between management and the Convenors.

Service Planning

David arranged for a discussion about the Service Improvement Plan. Again, as an officer, this was really beneficial to learn about as sometimes you feel as though your role is your job title – but being part of a team, a service, an organisation means you are always part of a wider picture too. It can be quite motivating to work toward an overarching goal in this way and uphold the organisation’s objectives through your own work. I really enjoyed hearing about how the Service nurtures leadership and skills, and the ‘bottom up’ approach in service planning.

The experience has been an interesting insight into the varied duties and responsibilities of a Chief Planner. When David and I met for our concluding meeting at the end of the experience he asked me if I ever wanted to be a Chief Planner – I won’t share my answer here – but we went on to have a nice discussion about our choices in life and reflecting on opportunities and where they’ve led us, which is really encouraging. 

In summary, I feel lucky to have been able to take advantage of the RTPI’s Chief Planners of Tomorrow initiative. I feel it is pertinent to me as a young planner progressing in my career, and I don’t think it could have come at a better time during the unprecedented events of 2020; reflecting on other local authority practices and sharing skills and opportunities at a time like this really embodies the spirit of the RTPI, and what I feel we should continue to be promoting as a planning profession.

I hope that the initiative proves equally rewarding to Chief Planners; understanding the needs of young planners within their service right now, or in future, and cultivating leadership potential from their team.

I would like to thank all those I had the opportunity to meet with during this experience for their time and insight. Finally, I extend my sincerest thanks to David Leslie for making this possible, I greatly appreciate your enthusiasm and mentorship through this time.

Looking back over Lockdown

Thank-you

We wanted to stop and take a moment to reflect over the past months. I think we can all agree that 2020 hasn’t turned out to be the year that we had envisaged. Covid-19 took the world by storm and as a nation we have had to swiftly adapt to a very different environment.

It has been one of our high priorities to continue to deliver a high-quality planning service to the people of Edinburgh. The planning service is a collaborative effort, we rely on public engagement, stakeholder contribution and of course, our customers, agents and, communities we work with on a daily basis. We wanted to take this opportunity to recognise your input in helping us to achieve a continued effective planning service; primarily your patience, your understanding and, your willingness to work with us during these challenging times. Though most of our work stations now look very different, this has not hindered our shared ability to deliver a service that will help to support the economy of our city and, ultimately improve the quality of life for its residents.

Thank you from all of us.

A Service Update

At this stage, we feel it is important to share our story over the past six months, how the service has performed and, the outcome of our efforts.

From April through to the end of September, we received a total of 2104 applications. Over the same period, we have fully assessed 1908 planning applications. Average determination times continue to improve towards exceeding the Scottish national average. Given the circumstances of which we are working in, we are proud of our performance.

As you will be aware, our offices continue to remain closed and so, the past seven months have been an evolving work in progress, putting systems and strategies in place in order to continue to perform as a service. As we continue to develop, we are looking into how to work effectively in this new, remote environment. At present, we are focussing on how we can implement greater efficiencies into our processes to ensure that we continually improve the service. We are devoted to delivering a service that ensures Edinburgh remains a great city to be enjoyed by all!

Decision making

To further facilitate continued decision making, formal meetings such as the Development Management Sub-Committee, have also had to adapt. Since May, to date, the DM Sub-Committee has met virtually on eleven occasions and worked on through their summer recess period to do so. Committee members embraced a new way of working and consequently, have made 82 decisions over the period which have included several major applications such as, the Wave Garden at the former Craigpark Quarry site.

Once again, we are proud to highlight that as a service, we have been doing our very best to maintain an effective planning service.

Lessons moving forward

Moving forward, we are keen to embrace this new way of working. Given the unlikely return to the ‘old way of working’, we are looking forward to being able to continue to deliver the planning service in collaboration with you.

Reflecting over these past months we have uncovered some new challenges and, lessons have been learned. As a result of Covid-19, three key lessons we have encountered which we now realise have a significant impact on the continued operation of the service:

• Rapid change and adaptation were required in response to lockdown. This ignited a shift in the attitudes towards change in the service. We used to be relatively slow to change established ways of working however, seven months on, change through trialling and embracing innovative ways of delivering an effective service is now our focus.

• We recognise the service would not have been able to continue to operate without embracing new digital ways of working. Internally, we now have a team continually investigating and implementing new digital platforms to help deliver an efficient service.

• Consideration for the well-being of our staff, our consultees, our customers and, our communities. Our appreciation for well-being has adapted as lockdown measures encourage us all to work from home. The Planning Authority’s top priority is well-being and we are dedicated to implementing measures, through our newly established well-being team, to ensure we do what we can to protect our health well-being.

For your information

There have been changes to the Authority’s Scheme of Delegation.

The Scheme of Delegation to Officers sets out the powers delegated by the City of Edinburgh Council to officers, under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and under emergency provisions, the Council’s Leadership Advisory Panel agreed temporary amendments to the Scheme of Delegation on 31 March 2020. These temporary amendments expired on 1 September 2020 and the new Scheme of Delegation comes into force on 1 November 2020.

To conclude

In conclusion, once again we thank-you for your co-operation during this period. None of the achievements mentioned above would have been possible without everyone’s input and willingness to ‘make it work’. We look forward to continuing to work with you in this ‘new normal’ and, striving to deliver an excellent planning service.

Thank you.